Posted in the Rutgers locker room was the scheduled date — March 15, 2020 — of Selection Sunday. Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell didn’t like to talk about the NCAA Tournament publicly, but internally, that was the mission from the time the team convened for summer workouts.
Thursday afternoon, as Rutgers’ flight from Indianapolis landed in Newark, its hope of snapping the school’s NCAA Tournament drought that stretches to 1991 vanished after the NCAA canceled March Madness due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was everything we’ve been talking about since June,” Pikiell told The Post in a phone interview. “Then they found on the internet it’s over. Tough day. Crazy day.
“They’re devastated. I mean, they worked hard on a goal all season long and they achieved it.”
Rutgers was in Indianapolis, preparing for its Big Ten Tournament opener against Michigan on Thursday when that tournament was called off 14 minutes before tip-off. At the time, Pikiell figured the NCAA Tournament wasn’t in jeopardy. It just would take place without fans. He figured it would be a thrilling experience anyway.
“I told my guys it’s going to be the most watched NCAA Tournament [ever], because people can’t go to the games,” Pikiell said. “But I still thought it would be played.”
Instead, this memorable season, in which the Scarlet Knights won 20 games for the first time in 16 years, went an astonishing 18-1 at home at the boisterous and frequently packed RAC and beat four ranked teams, ended prematurely. Picked to finish 12th in the 14-team Big Ten, Rutgers was eighth in arguably the best conference in the country. After a three-game losing streak put their tournament hopes in danger, the Scarlet Knights rebounded by manhandling Maryland at home and winning at Purdue. The Big Ten Tournament was about seeding for the big tournament, not about NCAA Tournament survival.
“We’ve been playing good basketball. I think we could’ve made a run,” said Pikiell, who agreed to a contract extension through 2025-26 in late February, at the tail end of his fourth season at Rutgers. “We played against every style, we played in every different kind of venue, tough programs. We were confident going into the Big Ten Tournament and confident going into the NCAA Tournament.”
Pikiell took the glass half-full approach, as is his way. He thought about a bright future, for himself, his staff, the program and its fans. Rutgers was ranked sixth in the country in defensive efficiency and was 13th in rebounds per game at 40.16.
Next year’s team can be even better. Of Pikiell’s top eight scorers, seven are slated to return. All-Big Ten third team selection Geo Baker will be a senior. Standout wing Ron Harper Jr. will be a junior, as will athletically gifted guard Montez Mathis and physical forward Myles Johnson. And the Scarlet Knights are in the final three, along with Arizona State and Auburn, for four-star big man Cliff Omoruyi of Roselle (N.J.) Catholic, and recently received a verbal commitment from four-star junior guard Jaden Jones of Missouri.
Clearly, the Scarlet Knights are headed in a very good direction.
“I love the kids we brought in already, I love the kids who signed NLIs. Our kids keep getting better,” Pikiell said. “We’re young as a program and better days are ahead. I’m excited about the future, I really am, and I want to continue building this program as we’ve been building it from day one.”